The new news model and saving the journalist.

Working for a traditional media company often has one thinking, did I choose the most challenging industry to work in? The one thing that is not dead is the need for good journalism. I know A.G Sulzberger, publisher of the New York Times does not like using content and journalism interchangeably. Fair point. Journalism is a content genre, a very important one.  

I’ve read hundreds of articles about how news is dying… The business model is dying, but Journalism is still thriving, in this essay I will try explaining how Journalism can survive and what I think the future looks like.

A quick recap on how the model worked.

It all starts in the newsroom where Reporters, Columnists, Contributors write content that’s published on newspapers. “All the news that’s fit to print” aggregating everything from local, national, sports, entertainment in one bundle. The local towns folk paid a monthly fee to have this delivered, this was the first dollar that came in. Now that the newspaper had the attention of thousands, every single day while they drank their morning coffee or during lunch time at the factory, they sold that attention to advertisers for the second big dollar.  Most population growth takes years; it is impossible to grow subscriptions without expanding geographies so that meant growing using other methods. It was quite simple, print more pages and get more advertisers. It was like printing money, literally.  

Fast forward to 1997 when Google launches the first search engine and 2004 when Facebook launches from Mark Zuckerberg’s dorm room.  The adoption of the internet has grown exponentially, I remember showing a Masai hunter in the Serengeti my website on his Huawei. To put it into context, the masai have lived inside the Serengeti National Park alongside wildlife for hundreds of years, he had not been on a plane or to a major urban city. But thanks to the Internet without boundaries, he knew how to send a Whatsapp message, find a video on YouTube and of course search my website where I would post his photo when I got back home. The world no longer has the first issue, the lines of geography have been erased. Anyone can search for any news they’re interested in from anywhere in the world. They get news from their friends sharing news on Facebook.  Essentially, the search engine and social media have stolen that attention newspapers once had and recruited an army of writers (their users) at no cost. Advertisers shift to where the attention is, search and social.

Prevalence of Content

Logging onto Twitter sometimes makes you feel like entering a busy newsroom. Everyone is a writer, giving their own unique points of view about topics that are “trending” a Twitter # search proves that. This is similar to editorial/opinion pieces found on newspapers, someone sharing their thoughts.

On the other hand, what is not on Twitter is Journalism. Investigative and fact-based reporting on issues that communities face.  Human behaviour has not changed, we still need “real news” it’s what forms “opinions”. The decline of newspapers meant there’s now less fact-based reporting that was once provided by the papers.  This has hurt communities that are not major cities, there are no longer reporters covering local government, sports, the news that residents in those geographies want.

Content is still around, but not the genre that focuses on facts.  

Success of the niche

This brings me to my next point, I have operated affiliate websites (basically sites that are monetized by referring a product or service) the best performing sites are ones with hyper niches. A hyper niche is when you review a specific type of product. A niche would be cars. Focused niche would be sedans. A hyper niche would be electric sedans.

Same concept can be applied to journalism. Local “papers” need to focus on news that is relevant to it’s residents. Someone living in Sudbury, Ontario doesn’t really care about what is happening in London, Ontario. A hyper local news site would give the best conversion for new subscribers.  With ciites with populations of atleast 100,000 it could be very profitable operation. In smaller towns between 20,000-50,000 it is still doable, and I’ll cover the financial model below.  

The Financial Model

Now that the internet has essentially killed the legacy costs associated with journalism. You no longer need a print press, distribution, and the expensive support staff. Everything done by legacy publishers can be done in under $1000 per year. The other variable spend is Audience development which can cost from $0 to a few thousand depending on growth goals.  

  • WordPress Site with a newspaper theme: $500/year
  • Subscription plugin: $65/year
  • Email Tool: $150/year
  • Freelance Design/Support: $285/year

The learning curve is steep but it’s quick.  The best method is a freemium model, write local content that readers lover. Keeping it free to gain traction but always say that you might move to a subscriber first model.  

The 5 metrics to track are unique users, pageviews email list, time spent on site and returning users. These need to go up always.  

For the sake of this piece I won’t delve into audience growth but let us take the example of a town with 100,000 residents. If you have only 1% of the city visit the site daily (maybe visiting 2 pages), that’s 60,000 pageviews a month.   That would net about $1500 to $3000 if you had some banner ads on the site (these ads would be served using programmatic advertising like Google AdSense). That’s why I focused on the 5 metrics; those are your growth levers.   The email list is how you get people coming back, direct access to your readers. The time spent is your engagement and returning users tell you how interested people are in your writing.

So you have the first 1,000 unique visitors – as I mentioned hyper local niches are best converters, for the sake of this argument I will take a 10% conversion. That’s a possibility of 100 readers becoming paid subscribers, this opens the second monetization method – an additional $500-1000 per month. Overtime you would want to increase subscribers, focusing on 1000 true fans. If only want 1% of the whole city population to subscribe that would net you close $120,000 per year. The average journalist earned about $50,000. The 1000 true fans would be the start of growth.

An era of new Publishers

The future of journalism is in self publishing. Once you achieve the thousand true fans, you can essentially provide quality journalism without relying on advertisers, providing a vital service to the community that is needed.  I am not a fan of pay walling, but to gain the first 1000 it might be a necessity. A freemium model of publishing is what I support, essential news should always be free. But the “financiers” should receive the benefit of knowing first, being given a platform to share their thoughts and the opportunity to have personalized forums. 

Final Thoughts

These are my initial thoughts on what I feel will transpire in the world of news and journalism. I plan on expanding my thoughts even further and increasing the depth of this article. But for the first stage, those were my thousand words on the issue.  

I read a great piece on How the Newspaper industry killed itself.

Here’s an excerpt from a speech by Sulzberger Sr, former chairman of the New York Times, the one where he says newspapers will never go out of business and that the so-called information superhighway now under construction looks a lot like a roadway in India: “chaotic, crowded, and swarming with cows… ” He is so right.

People will always need newspapers to explain their world to them. Local businesses will always need them, too.

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